Enter this queer-friendly salon in need of a haircut, leave with a new sense of self

by Danielle F. Winter

For the first time in 10 years, Kameron Hendricks sat in a parlor chair to get a haircut. His hairstylist bombarded him with questions: What products did he use? Did he put his hair up? Did he wash with you? How often?

He had previously had hairdressers refuse him a short haircut. And barbershops focused on male haircuts make him uncomfortable. But on a sweltering Thursday afternoon, Hendricks was ready to try again at Salon Benders in Long Beach, known for its gender-neutral and inclusive approach.

Enter this queer-friendly salon in need of a haircut, leave with a new sense of self

The 25-year-old student is half-black and half-Mexican and was assigned a woman at birth. While long hair is expected from women in his family, he said, he has never had any contact with the “female symbol.” He had almost given up on finding a stylist he could trust to make him look like the person he wanted to be, not who he was told to be.

“Hair is vulnerability; hair is how you are perceived,” Hendricks said.

For the gay community, hair – with its gender undertones – can be difficult to navigate. If salons are for women and barbershops are for men, where do you go to get your haircut? Queer clients travel far and wide to get new looks in a safe space at Salon Benders.

Owner Jessie Santiago opened the salon in 2017 with her partner, Cal Bigari—the salon charges by the hour instead of setting prices by gender. Hairstylists are trained in cutting techniques, communication, and a trauma-informed approach to working with LGBTQ clients.

When Hendricks got his share, a toy Aussie named Frieda, an employee’s service dog, ran to the door to greet customers. A suncatcher at the entrance scattered rainbows on the ground. It felt like home.

Jesse Santiago, 39, co-owner of Salon Benders, says she is “humbled and honored to provide a space for people who have never had a space.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Cal Bigari, 35, is the co-founder and co-owner of the salon. “In the world, we have limited space, and this is where we can lay our armor,” he said. “A big part of what we provide is freeing you from that gender expression.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Kinuyo Fujikawa, 41, says, “Her telegraphs people about you before you interact. It’s a shared experience and a connection.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Hendricks came out as transgender to his immediate family on his birthday in 2021 and started the transition this year.

“I was very excited and nervous about going to the hairdresser because it would be the first change anyone would notice,” Hendricks said.

“And that’s why we’re taking it easy,” said his hairstylist, Lizz Meador. She switched to scissors, trimmed and shaped his Afro, and checked regularly to ensure Hendricks liked the length. Using electric clippers, Meador gave him an undercut; the sound buzzed through the quiet parlor, and long locks covered the floor below.

When he was younger, Hendricks had wanted to cut his hair short, but his parents disagreed. When he later tried to get it cut himself, he was rejected by two salons. The stylists told him to go home and think about it.

“I was so put off by the fact that they didn’t listen to me,” Hendricks said. †[Like] they knew better than me what to do with my hair.”

After that, he stopped going to salons.

But when he came to his family, they were comforting and supportive—and finally understood why he wanted his hair short for so long.

“And that’s why I thought, ‘You know what, I’m crazy about getting a haircut,'” Hendricks said.

Meador finished the cut by massaging hair tonic into his scalp and working curl cream through the locks, painstakingly shaping each curl with her fingers.

“I didn’t expect to be so emotionally involved,” Meador said of working at Salon Benders.

Before he left, Hendricks made his next appointment.

Amanda Black, 29, says working in the salon encourages her to be herself. In other salons, she says, because she was the only queer employee, she was forced to hide bits of herself and her experience. “Hair was my safety blanket, and now it’s an extension of my facial expression. It’s a strange signal,” she said.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Karina Rayo, a manager at Salon Benders, said the salon “feels safe and inclusive.” For the 34-year-old, “Her means strength and vulnerability.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Rachel Fishbough left, working on Dr. Kasa Nisner. Niesner is a loyal customer who flew in from Nashville to have their hair done in the salon.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Kasa Niesner sat in a leopard-print salon dress in another corner of the salon while a hairstylist worked bleach through their locks.

Niesner had gotten off the plane at LAX and headed straight to Long Beach for their haircut appointment. They wanted to dye their short black hair in bright blue and indigo-mermaid colors.

The 38-year-old medical resident has homes in Tennessee, Arizona, and Nevada, travels frequently, but always returns to Salon Benders for a haircut.

It’s a place “where you feel safe with others,” Niesner said.

Niesner was born intersex at a young age and surgically designated as male. Although they spent most of their childhood presenting as male, they always identified as female, which changed in 2016. Over time, Niesner realized that they were non-binary.

They’ve tried salons and barber shops but were often wrong-sexed and given pixie cuts or undershaves they didn’t want. Stylists made them uncomfortable and didn’t ask permission before touching their hair – something strongly emphasized at Salon Benders because of the trauma many gays face.

Niesner also enjoys the “quiet service” option without the pressure of chatter that usually comes with salon appointments.

“I just don’t get my hair done anywhere else,” they said. “That’s exactly how special this place is to me.”

One person who asked not to be identified in this photo said, “Hair…means becoming what I see in my head and the mirror.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Finley “Fin” Frye, 25, became a manager after finding a real home as a client at Salon Benders. “Getting someone to do my hair right is a game-changer for how I think about my gender. I’ve come a long way just shaving my head. It’s a team effort.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Cultivating this special space was also a “healing journey” for the owners of Salon Benders.

Santiago has been cutting her hair since she was 17, but she almost completely stopped being a hairstylist.

“It’s a pretty toxic industry as a whole,” Santiago said. “It’s especially toxic and not super-friendly to queers and people of color, which I am both.”

Before meeting Santiago, Bigari had never had a haircut that made him feel like himself. He hadn’t learned what products to use with his short hair or what to do with his beard. Like Hendricks, when he came out and began his transition, he didn’t feel comfortable in the “ultramasculine environment” of a barbershop.

But Santiago helped him define his appearance in an environment where he felt safe, an experience the couple hopes to provide clients.

Salon Benders is about “people who are euphoric in their bodies,” Santiago said.

Santiago also emphasizes creating a healthy work environment for her stylists after her own experiences with burnout.

The five stylists they employ receive an hourly wage plus commission, paid time off, and money for continuing education. It’s unusual in the hair industry, and it’s not a sustainable model, admits Santiago. Both she and Bigari have other jobs and do not benefit from the salon.

Bigari is a school liaison for the Long Beach LGBTQ Center, provides youth and family services, and advocates for students. The salon often has booths at local outreach events, offering free scalp massages and raising money to offer discounted haircuts to needy clients.

Shelley Norfleet, 27, poses for a portrait after a haircut. “Hair means a lot as someone of mixed race. My hair is my identification. It’s my identity,” they said. “Before I discovered Salon Benders, I hadn’t cut my hair for ten years.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Adrie Silva, 39, touches her hair after cutting and coloring. She said she likes to feel the wind on her scalp.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“Every day, we make this huge impact on people,” said Andrea Arriola-Pinto, 31, a stylist at Salon Benders. “Hair goes beyond the length; it’s beyond the trend. It’s the creative outlet that saved my life.”

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

After Hendricks felt more like himself, a few customers left that Thursday afternoon; one of them was Adrie Silva, who wanted a big change on her fourth appointment at Salon Benders.

She looked at dusty purple, maybe a pastel pink hair dye – in stark contrast to her usual dark head of hair.

Andrea Arriola-Pinto swirled light magentas, indigos, and dark purples at the mixing station in four bowls like an artist mixing paint.

Silva, 39, is queer and a veteran. The Orange County native previously got a mullet—partly by accident—but loved how Salon Benders’ stylists redecorated it for her and have since stuck with the look. However, this was her first color appointment.

“I’d rather have it shaved off and not think about it,” Silva said. †[But] if I have to have her, I like to experiment with it.”

She gave Arriola-Pinto some photos for inspiration but let her take the reins, although she’s usually picky.

Five hours later, bleaching and dyeing, Silva’s harder “literally looks like purple quartz,” hairstylist Meador said as she walked by.

“Or an iridescent crystal,” said Arriola-Pinto. She gave Silva a granola bar, a much-needed snack after a long hair appointment.

“No other salon looks like this,” Silva said.

Rachel Fishbough, 24, a stylist at Salon Benders, said it’s so beautiful to work somewhere, so accepting. “Seeing how you feel is very important and even more important if you are queer,” they said.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Love White sells a tincture for all hair types in the salon. “Hair is an authentic expression – being true to yourself and sincere,” she said.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Additional reporting by Dania Maxwell.

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